With high prices and scarce labor, technology becomes ‘essential’ for Georgia farmers: WABE

As Donald Chase tours his family’s farm in Oglethorpe, his constant companion is never far away.

His dog, Ginger, follows us as we tour the farm in a four-wheeler, stopping to take a look at this year’s peanut crop.

“We had some challenges early on with the heat and everything, but they did really well,” Chase said of the peanuts. “These should be ripe around September 22.”

Peanuts are just one of the crops grown here. As we speak, Chase keeps a close eye on the corn crop flowing into the back of a tractor-trailer. Here they also raise poultry.

This farm has been in his family since the 1950s, when his father started working the land as a teenager. As Chase tells it, his father, now 85, was actually the one who started pushing for more technology.

“My dad had gone to an agricultural convention and he came back very excited, ‘oh, we need this auto steering,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, but how do we pay for that, dad?’”

But he says he went ahead and spent $50,000 on two tractors that use GPS technology to drive themselves.

“I was wrong not to be able to pay for itself, that’s fine,” Chase said. “Actually, he has a pretty quick return on investment.”

And he says technology now touches nearly every part of what happens on this farm, from planting to detailed soil monitoring to fertilizer treatments.

For Georgia farmers, the cost of seeds and fertilizers has risen exponentially in recent years, while resources like water and labor have become scarcer. And that has led many farmers to turn to technology to help make the most of their land.

Even after the harvest, Chase says they can look back and analyze what they did right and what they did wrong.

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Farmer Donald Chase inspects his peanut crop on his farm in Oglethorpe, Georgia. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

“By having performance monitors, we can look back and say ‘yeah, we didn’t do something right here,’” Chase said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it usually happens. It would be nice to say ‘oh yeah, we hit a home run.’ Usually it’s about finding the places where ‘hey, I need to do some more management there.'”

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He says that the use of technology has fundamentally changed the way things are done here.

“That’s the kind of technology I really like: something where I can save money, save a resource, and actually increase yields,” Chase said. “That’s a win-win. You don’t get many of those.”

This kind of precision farming, as it’s known, is something Simer Virk has been studying since he came to the US a decade ago from India, where he also came of age, working on a farm.

“We did a lot of things. [by] hand, you know, I used to tell the story of my hand harvesting of wheat and cotton growing up,” Virk said.

Virk now works at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus, teaching precision agriculture. That’s where he showed me around in his truck. Virk says part of what he’s learned since he’s been in Georgia is how different the soil can be, with red tops and sandy bottoms in the same field.

“Technology is what is helping us respond to that variability,” Virk said. “How are we going to apply different amounts of fertilizer, seed, or water to different places in the field?”

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Simer Virk, who works at UGA’s Tifton campus, describes modern technology on board a tractor. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

As we climb the steps of a tractor, he says it’s not uncommon these days to see a GPS receiver on the front and multiple display screens inside.

“Most of the time now, especially on machinery like this, it’s standard,” Virk said.

Rural broadband expansion

Virk says technology in agriculture won’t reach its full potential until internet connectivity is more reliable in rural areas.

“One of the hurdles early on in using all of this data that we collect is that a grower may not have time in the season or even late in the season to move that data from the machinery to a computer or software where it is stored. they will store be analyzed and help you make decisions,” Virk said.

Chase says he often struggles with unreliable Internet connections on his farm. But he says relief is on the way.

“I’m part of the electric cooperative world and we’re going to have fiber,” Chase said. “It will take several years, but I think that will revolutionize things. It will make us much more able to communicate.”

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Chase says that more reliable Internet connections will also save money compared to your current setup.

“I have a cell phone contract for that monitor, I have one across the street, I have one somewhere else and I also had them in the cornfields, so there are like six cell phone accounts. And I have two for the chicken coop,” Chase said. “You get the idea.”

Seth Crawford says that the expansion of rural broadband, in the US and abroad, can help farmers share data and best practices for farming. Crawford is senior vice president in charge of digital and precision agriculture at AGCO, a Duluth, Georgia-based farm equipment manufacturing company.

“You really get to where every plant in the world could be a test plot, but for us to do that kind of study, we have to have connectivity that doesn’t exist today,” Crawford said.

Crawford says farming’s growing reliance on technology has led to significant investment by farm equipment manufacturers.

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Simer Virk moved to the US from India a decade ago to study agriculture. He now teaches precision agriculture at UGA’s Tifton campus. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

“There is a general belief that farmers will be slow to adopt, when in fact the reality is that they are some of the fastest adopters,” he said.

Crawford says that AGCO spends hours and hours studying the hundreds of processes that take place on a farm every day and collecting data from his team.

“When everything is ready, we can get the operator out of the cab and get our machines running. [work] autonomously throughout the field,” he said.

The future

Back at the family farm, Chase says that his three children have little interest in following in his footsteps.

“As we educate them and try to give them the opportunity to do whatever they choose to do, they think ‘well, I don’t know if I want to do that,’” Chase said.

And that’s why he believes that making the technology more common in agriculture will make it more likely that a younger generation will want to participate.

“If we don’t do something, I don’t know who’s going to farm, I really don’t know,” Chase said.

He says that technology in agriculture was once a luxury, but now it is essential.

“We all have to do more than one thing at any given time,” Chase said. “Then the technology becomes an absolute necessity.”

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